We’ve never met, but I love him. His name escapes me as if I know it, but simply can’t remember it. He’s a little bit shorter than I am. His skin is the color of the earth which gathers around sycamore trees. Everything about him is sharp. His eyes are half-mooned and hawk like, his tapered cheekbones like the women in my family, could cut steel or diamonds. His figure is lean and sleek. He was born this way, and I’m sure he died like this. When I imagine him, he is always above deck, scared, confused, desperate, still. He is the first of my African ancestors to be snatched, stolen, seized, swiped, spirited away, or any other word which means captured, beginning with the letter “s”, synonymous with words like slavery and submission. One day I will name him, then I will make a portrait of him which I will encircle with offerings of fruit and flowers. In times of civil and spiritual unrest I will leave a bowl of water for him by my bed and we will meet in the dream world over a feast of pan, leche, and miel. In this foreign land people will ask me from time to time, “Where are you really from”, I’ll think of my ancestor, I’ll imagine generations of my family auctioned away, rapes, lynchings, tendon tearing labor, violence, blood, and then darkness. This question will always confuse me. Are they ignoring world history, U.S. history, European history? What are they missing, I’ll think quietly while simultaneously answering, “Where do you think I’m from”?
It was just the two of us, flirting in the corner, whiskey and beer wetting our lips. “Where do you come from”, he asked with a toothy grin. “I’m from Los Angeles”, I answered, my lips turning into a pleasant but skillfull bow. “Do your parents also come from Los Angeles? Where are they from”, he cross examined? “They’re also both from L.A. They grew up just a block away from each other”, I answered. For a moment the bars of his gleaming smile were concealed by two tight lips. “Well, where do their parents come from”, he said after some time, almost as if he were annoyed. “They come from Mississippi, Texas, and Florida.” “I’ll be right back”, he said, and headed for the bar. When he returned, he had a sheet of scratch paper and a pen. Without speaking to me he began drawing a series of boxes. Sipping my whiskey I looked on having no idea what he was constructing. When he stopped two minutes later he explained, “Each box is a member of my family. We are all Berliners. We don’t know of somebody of us, not from Berlin. What about you?” This again. Just relax, I thought to myself. Preceding my statement, because that’s what it felt like, with a long sigh, I explained that I have African ancestry from the slave trade and then I proceeded to tell him about Grandmother’s ancestry. Then her husband Grandaddy’s heritage, and finally my paternal Grandfather MeMe’s heritage. He listened impatiently, then he smiled and asked, “Okay, but where are you from in Africa? What can you tell me about that?”
Have you ever walked into a room only to notice a pair of eyes trained on you, through you, past your clothing, past your muscles, past your skeleton, focused razor sharp on the energy that makes up your body and your mind? Have you ever felt yourself keenly aware that the person gazing upon you seems disgusted that you have the audacity to exist in the first place? At an hour when I should have been on my way to my apartment with enough junk food to soak up the spirits I consumed, I beheld such a stare. It was his friend who spoke first. He kept his back to me playing the slot machine, which choo chooed and chimed. “Where are you from”, he asked. “I’m from Los Angeles”, I answered. “Oh cool man. How long have you been here for”, he asked? Before I could answer, I was met with, “No you’re not from no Los Angeles. I bet your Grandfather was a slave.” In my inner ‘It don’t rain in Southern California drawl’ I thought, What is this dude’s problem? As if he could read these particular thoughts, he turned around to look at me. His long locks dangled at his waist. He looked tired, angry. “He was actually a truck driver”, I said with a laugh, which seemed to annoy him even more. “He was a slave, and you’re no American”, he insisted. “Leave him alone. He says he’s from America. Don’t mind him”, his friend said calmly. Okay then, I’ll just order another drink, I thought, smiling, and backing away. Hours later when the eastern sky was pink and gold, I noticed that he was glaring at me. That’s when I did what one should always do when one is tipsy and should be in bed: I approached conflict. Sensible, I know. “My Dad and Brother live in Texas”, he said with a wry smile. “Oh cool my Grandmother was from…” “No. They really live in Texas.” I could end this now if I want to. I have my passport in my pocket, I thought. “I should call them right now.” Should I just take it out and show it to him? Why? Why should I do that? What will I get out of it? I already know the truth. What’s the sense in proving it? “Your accent’s really convincing, but I know that you’re no American. I’m going to call my Dad. You can speak to him, and my brother, because they are really in Texas!”
Like so many foreigners living in Berlin, I too have worked at a call center. This is where I met Giuseppe. Giuseppe was born in Italy. During his childhood his family lived in the French speaking part of Switzerland, so Giuseppe was boom ba da boom, a switch hitter, which meant that he could work on Italian and French speaking projects. We saw each other a lot because there were always assignments which he could work on due to his command of Italian and French. Giuseppe had sea green eyes that you could drown in and long, unruly locks dotted with dandruff, which appeared as if they had been resisting for over a hundred years. He dressed like so many Berlin Bohemes: nondescript oversized sweaters, drop crotch pants, complimented with second hand shoes. We chatted from time to time in the tiny hallway between the smoker’s room and the entrance/exit doors. “So you are from Los Angeles”, he asked me one day while rolling a cigarette. “Yeah, that’s right”, I said. He’s so cute, I thought, my spirit shaking it’s head in agreement. “Tell me though, are you in touch with your African side?” This switch hitter had just thrown a curveball, and there I was at bat. Before we go into this any further, what are we supposed to say? How do those of us who are members of the diaspora answer questions like these? What do they think that they sound like to us? After years of questions and comments like these, I had learned to throw with my left hand just as well as I could with my right. Sometimes I could confuse them. Silence them, or influence them to rethink their statements or their questions. “Well, I don’t know about my ‘African side’ because we weren’t allowed to keep our customs. I am part Geechee, but I don’t know too much about it. I’m part Native American too. My work is actually about my heri…” “No, I’m not interested in that. It’s a shame you don’t your roots”, he exclaimed. Giussepe finished rolling his cigarette, said goodbye, and there I was all by myself, the self that I live with everyday along side the social construct which seeks to hold this self captive, a mechanism I find myself picking at, like the lock of a cell that I am doing time in.
He had said it a few times, and each time he said it, I smiled it away trying not to think of the space between us. Our Grand Canyon is filled with disparate experiences that never quite connect. So much of his identity is anchored in his homosexuality. So much of my identity is anchored in Blackness. Blackness sometimes shields me from being seen as a gay man, within the LGBTQI communities that I find myself in. Race also has many ways of obfuscating my sexuality in the heteronormative societies I find my Black body cycling through. Whereas I am a Black, gay man, he’s just a gay man. This was our great divide, or one of the spaces where there wasn’t enough love to fill this particular gap between us. “I was watching them the whole time. I wanted to make sure that they treated you the way that they treated my brother’s wife”, he said, punctuating his statement with a smile dripping in satisfaction from ear to ear. His fear was that they might not regard me the way that they regarded his brother’s wife. My fear was being treated like a nigger. They were warm, well behaved, and welcoming. When his Grandmother died, I knew that I would meet friends of the family, and relatives from far and wide. My stomach was in knots. So dizzy was I with nervousness, anxiety, and fear, all of which gave way to anger. I shouldn’t be thinking about this, but I was. I had survived round one with no casualties. How would I fare during round two?
They gave me the task of reading through the sympathy cards which the family had received. It seemed like a way to comfort them, to support them, to help them through their collective grief. That’s when his father did it. Immediately, I had understood that he was making a comment about my skin color, but I asked him to translate his father’s words to make sure that what I comprehended was correct and to the “t”. “He said that in Cuba they had a tour guide who spoke very good German. I guess he lived in Germany for five years, and when he came back he was about your complexion. When he returned to Cuba his mother said that his skin looked washed out.” Once it was clear that I had understood, everyone laughed. My Black skin, which covered the only Black body for miles appeared ‘washed out’ in the foreign land that I reside in, famous for it’s lack of sunshine. Where’s the next card, I wondered, trying to distract myself. On the following day his Grandmother’s ashes were buried. Keeping my distance to allow he and his family space to greet those who had come to pay their respects, I found myself being gently nudged toward the mourners. “Come and join us. You don’t need to stand here by yourself. I think you are from Africa, and I have been told that it’s a welcoming country. We are all from Africa.” When I explained to her that the last people in my family “from Africa” were forcibly removed from the continent, she was flustered and confused. Her pout said, “Well I was only trying to be nice.” At the reception I was introduced to the ‘Czech cousins’. “Where are you from”, asked one of his cousins dryly. Here it comes. “From Los Angeles”, I didn’t bother to say I’m from, just “Aus Los Angeles”. He looked at me stupefied, as if my answer was stupid, or as if I were stupid for thinking that he would believe that I was from Los Angeles. “You’re not really from America. I think you’re Nigerian, and Black Americans need to work harder.” Keep it cool. This isn’t the right time. You’re here for him. This isn’t the time or the place, I thought. Not long after he finished his sentence, we found ourselves surrounded by the other mourners. When I told him about all of this later, he said, “I’m not responsible for the things my family says. I never asked you not to defend yourself.”
“I know I shouldn’t but I sometimes read the comments under the press that you’ve received and arrrrggggh. They’re infuriating. Like the one about ‘Where are you really from’, people are just not getting it.” This is a friend of mine who shared several of my blog posts on his Facebook page, and that caught the attention of the New York Times which published a half page spread on the blog and the photo series Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Him. The article was published on November 16th, 2016. Nearly every day after this article was published, I spoke to journalists far and wide for newspapers, magazines, online publications, radio, and television. Many of you found your way to this blog thanks to the press that it has and continues to receive. There’s been an amazing outpouring of support, but more importantly, many of you have expressed moments of recognition. Some of you feel like I am telling your story, and the representation of your story brings comfort and creates a space for dialogue. When a project that you execute goes viral there will be praise, but there will also be pendejadas. “They just aren’t seeing the word ‘really’, and thinking that you’re upset because people are asking you where you’re from.” “Well, you know, I expected this. If it wasn’t this particular t-shirt it would be another one, but I have noticed that a lot of the dialogue, a lot of outrage, and criticism is directed at this particular shirt. The real issue is that this project is talking about racism.” We continued marching down Danziger str. We marched in solidarity to raise awareness for a Black teenager, who had been beaten by four White men, one of whom greeted this young man by saluting Hitler seconds before the attack.
“What if I’m an anthropologist, and I want to know where someone is from”, he asked, raising his eyebrows. Forum Brazil had invited me to exhibit the t-shirts from Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Him, and to speak in honor of Black Awareness Day, a day set aside to commemorate and celebrate the contributions of Black Brazilians. The talk had finished hours ago, but had raised a few hairs. “I speak fluent Spanish, but when I go to Spain, the people ask me where I’m from. This is a normal question. What’s wrong with me asking a Black girl where she’s from?” With my complimentary meal getting cold, I found myself whisked away by the staff, saved from covering Racism 101 modules, which at that time I felt the responsibility to address during lectures and interviews. As I was gathering my belongings there he was, and in that moment I found the opportunity to study the hullabaloo surrounding this particular question, a racist question through and through. “If you’re an anthropologist, and let’s say I’m Swedish. If you ask me where I’m from and I tell you that I’m from Sweden, that’s where I’m from. That’s how I identify myself.” “Yeah, okay… but what if I want to know your background. Why isn’t this question allowed?” We volleyed back and forth for five minutes over a scenario involving a Swedish person who’s parents were born and raised in Uganda. Oh the games you find yourself playing while innocently thinking that you’re having a conversation that might make a difference. What I realised while he was speaking can be best summed up by a chain of thoughts I’m sure I had while looking him straight in the eye. Yo this dude like needs to be able to ask non-Whites where we’re from, where we’re really from… It’s like, essential to his sense of security or something. Now even though these thoughts that circled between my ears spoke in a Cali, valley brogue, I take them seriously. They’re not too far from the truth, or shall we say they’re not too far from the past or the present.
What bothers me most about questions like “Where are you really from”, or “What about before that, where did you come from”, is that there are reasons why I don’t have the answer to questions like these. There were times where I supposed out loud that my ancestors came from West Africa, as if what we call West Africa today as a region, has always been known by this particular name. As if the people living in West Africa have always lived there, and that there have been few, if any changes to the region itself or the people who inhabit the land. Where am I really from? The word really implies that I haven’t understood the question, that I am lying, that I can’t really be from a nation like America. Black bodies do not lay roots in sovereign soil and are not associated with continents or countries which race/racism define as powerful principalities. The idea that these questions seek to understand ethnicity or alternative national origins makes the terra firma gumshoe’s goals transparent. Another way of asking a person where they’re really from might be, “Where do you belong? Where can I place you in a racist frame of reference. The fact that I can’t detail my African origins has everything to do with racism, the transatlantic slave trade, and colonialism, oppression, and power. Sometimes I felt doubly embarrassed for myself, and for the people who parted their lips to ask such questions. These summons reminded me of my place, or better said, they reminded me that I had no place. Not even in their theories of a static never changing, ever present Africa, nor the North American land who’s soil my ancestors toiled over. This is one of the things which racism excels at. Like many other ‘isms’ and ‘obias’, racism expertly rejects, revokes, and refuses non-Whites individuality and the ability to define ourselves without being challenged.
Isaiah Lopaz, Him Noir.